Mesopotamia

The “Tree of Life” is a common motif throughout Mesopotamian mythology.

A sacred tree is thought to have stood at the centre of the Universe, near the ancient city of Eridu at the mouth of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Its roots penetrated the waters of the abyss, which were guarded by Ea the God of wisdom. The leaves of the sacred tree were the place of the heavens, while its stem/trunk was home to the Earth.

5000 BCE – Mesopotamia is a broader geographical term for ‘the land between the rivers’, referring to the ancient civilizations that lived between the Tigris and Euphrates river. Today its area includes modern day Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran.

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A cylinder seal with a Tree of Life (unkown)

Mesopotamia was dominated by six primary cultures: Sumerians, Akkadians, Hittites, Assyrians, Phoenicians and Babylonians.

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Sumerian contract: selling of a field and a house. Shuruppak, pre-cuneiform script. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

3500 BCE – Sumerians were the first ever urban civilization. They invented cuneiform, wedge-like impressions in wet clay that dried into tablets. It eventually replaced early pictographs.

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Phoenician scarab of Astarte and Baal on both sides of a tree.

2750 BCE – Phoenicians (Lebanon) the city Usher was founded as a port along the Mediterranean Sea. They worshipped Astarte/Asherah as the queen of heaven and her son, Baal. Baal was a fertility God. Astarte is the root word for the word “star.”

The Cedars of Lebanon – were protected by the Sumerian god Enlil. The Cedars were highly prized by all cultures for building temples and ships. Many stories were written about them. The most famous is Solomon’s Temple.

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Shamash/An (Sun God) the flying solar disc above the Tree of Life.  Tended by Enki (Lord of Water) and Enlil (Lord of Wind) along with the winged Apkalla. Sumerian cylinder seals.

2600 BCE – Shamash/An/Anu/Ea (Samas), also called Utu. His symbol of the solar disc shows a circle with four points protruding toward the cardinal directions and four wavy lines emanating diagonally outward from between them, representing the power, light, warmth, and reach of the sun. Utu/Shamash was not only the bringer of light but the arbiter of justice. The light of the sun was thought to be able to penetrate and pierce every level of the earth, even to the underworld, and illuminate the human heart. Most of the myths featuring Utu/Shamash emphasize his kindness and generosity. Nanna was his counterpart as God of the Moon and wisdom.

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Stone relief depicting Sargon (2334–2279 BCE) honoring the Tree of Life.

2334 BCE – Akkadians lived in central Mesopotamia, north of the Sumerians. Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279 BCE) was influential in establishing language, military power and art. Sargon conquered the Sumerians, creating the world’s first empire. The Akkadians admired and copied Sumerian culture even as they invaded them. They spoke Akkadian, which is distantly related to Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic. Sargon was a gardener and according to legend he was found floating in a basket on the Euphrates. He was taken in by a priestess who educated him. He rose to become a mighty warrior. (Similar to Moses)

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A circular Tree of Life within a Flower of Life pattern depicting the universal nature of life. Circa 2250 BCE.

2250 BCE – The Hatti were the original tribe of Anatolia/Turkey. The Hatti people are thought to have migrated into Turkey bringing with them a Germanic based language known as Indo-European. The above Sun Disc is made of bronze, and was commonly used in religious ceremonies. The circle which forms the perimeter of the disc represents life, the three disks represent the Sun, Moon and Venus. (This could be the earliest representation of the Kabbalah – Tree of Life and Sacred Geometry combined.)

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2150 BCE – Epic of Gilgamesh – The first epic poem written in Cuneiform.

2150 BCE – Ancient Babylon was the home of the historic king of Ur called Gilgamesh. Ur, is also the legendary home of Abraham and Sarah from the book of Genesis.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh – Shamash (Sun God) helps mortals deal with the demon of the Cedar Forest, Humbaba. Anu (God of Heaven) revealed knowledge to Gilgamesh. whose companion Enkidu is made human by Innana/Astarte/Asherah (Queen of Heaven.) This tale contains many encounters with trees, tree spirits, a serpent, a garden, a search for love and companionship, a desire for immortality, a great flood and a creation story. The tale itself may date thousands of years earlier.

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In the Myth of Etana, the Etana petitions Shamash (Sun God) for aid in helping his wife conceive at the same time that an eagle and a serpent are feuding over ownership of a tree. In the beginning, there was no king on the earth; the gods thus set out to find one and apparently chose Etana who proved to be an able ruler until he discovered that his wife, though pregnant, was unable to give birth, and thus he had no heir to the throne. The one known remedy was the birth plant, which Etana was required to bring down personally from heaven. Etana, therefore, prayed to the god Shamash who heard his request and directed him to a mountain where a maimed eagle, languishing in a pit (into which it had been thrown as punishment for breaking a sacred pact), would help him obtain the special plant. Etana rescued the eagle, and as a reward it carried him high up into the sky.

In the story of Inanna and Huluppu-Tree, the goddess Inanna (Queen of Heaven) takes a young Huluppu-tree (The Tree of Life) and transplants it in her city of Uruk, hoping that, when it reached maturity, she would use its wood to craft a throne and couch to recline on. As the years went by, a snake built a nest in its roots, a bird nested in its branches and, at its center, the evil spirit of a Lillitu (Lillith) set up house. When Inanna came to water her tree one evening and found these unwanted guests, she sat down and cried through the night. At dawn, her twin brother Utu/Shamash (Sun God) rose in the east and began his journey across the sky. Inanna called out to him and told him of her trouble, but he could not stop his daily trek and, further, told her he felt no need to. Inanna then sought the aid of Gilgamesh, who killed the snake, drove the bird away, and sent the Lillitu demon running. Afterwards, he cut down the tree and presented it to Inanna for her throne and couch. This was no selfish request on her part because, from the tree, she created the sacred drum and drumsticks for Gilgamesh which he was supposed to use for good but then misused for war; they were taken from him and drawn down to the netherworld. Then Enkidu, comrade in arms of Gilgamesh and his best friend, descends to the underworld to bring them back, and after his death,  Utu/Shamash parts the veil so that the two friends can talk one last time. This myth highlights a central aspect of the personality of Utu/Shamash: his involvement in the most intimate aspects of one’s life.

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A Stele of Nammu (Goddess of the Sea) and Nanna (God of the Moon) making an offering to a Tree. Circa 2060 BCE

Inanna – Goddess of love, fertility and war, Queen of Heaven (also known as Ishtar, Astarte, Asherah) Her name means star. Later the Greeks and Romans named her Aphrodite and Venus.

1700-1200 BCE – The Hittite invade the area of Anatolia/Turkey and conquered Hattusa, a powerful city that had existed before 2500 BCE.

1792 BCE – Babylon was a town in what had been the territory of the empire of Akkad in Sargon’s day. King Hammurabi, conquered most of Mesopotamia and founded an empire, as well as creating a famous code of laws. The Babylonian Empire did not long survive Hammurabi’s death, but his lasting legacy was to make Babylon itself into a huge and important city, and a major centre of religion and culture; a status it would keep for over a thousand years.

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Assyrian, (Tree of Life tablet) 865-860 BCE. At Nimrud, North-West Palace, Room B.

1300 BCE – Assyria was the name given to the region of northern Mesopotamia. It had been part of the Akkadian empire, but later established its independence. The Assyrians became expansionistic and warlike.

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Ishtar (Venus), Sin (Moon), and Shamash (Sun) depicted on a stelae/stone tree of King Meli-Shipak II (1100 BCE) granting land to a man and woman.

1077 BCE – Assyria conquered land all the way to Syria and the Mediterranean, as well as controlling Babylonia. It was the most powerful empire in the Middle East, stretching from Egypt to Persia (Iran).

1000 BCE – Phoenicians (Lebanon) their Capitol city of Tyre is at the height of it power. King Abibaal of Tyre makes a trade agreement with King David of Israel who sent the new king timber from the fabled cedars of Lebanon, Abibaal’s son, Hiram, did the same for Solomon. Tyre is an ancient port city on the Mediterranean known as the birthplace of Europa, which gave Europe its name. Tyre shifted the worship from Baal, El, Balaat and Astarte/Asherah to Melqart as the head of the pantheon. He became the king of the city. He was a seen as a fertility God whose festival was held in February/March as a symbol of resurrection by fire. His other name became “the fire of heaven.”.

900 BCE – The Chaldeans were a Semetic (Hebrew/Aramaic) speaking tribe of nomads from Syria and Levant. They migrated into Mesopotamia and settled in the far south of the region near the Persian Gulf. They assimilated the local customs and learned Akkadian. They were renowned for their knowledge of writing, math and astronomy. The concepts of a Maji/Magus began with the Chaldeans as a Wise person who knew how to read the stars and the cosmos.

604 BCE – King Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Assyrians. Babylon became the greatest city of the Chaldean Empire. He rebuilt all the cities in Babylonia and turned it into a powerful empire that stretched from the land of Ur (Iraq) to Egypt.

600 BCE – The worship of Mithras as an Iranian Sun God who shined on contracts, laws, and agriculture began to appear. Some think he was worshipped much earlier.    He is often seen slaying a bull that releases the moon thus creating trees and vegetation.

600 BCE – The Chaldean/Persian high priest Zoroaster believed, “that to know the Tree of Life is to know the soul and its way to heaven.” He was considered a Maji, in the Chaldean/Persian tradition. Maji were seen as astrologers who mastered the ability to travel with the stars. They were astronomers, mathematicians and philosophers. The Cypress, an evergreen tree, was seen as the Tree of Life.

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Sacred Cypress tree of immortality at Persepolis.

Cypress of Zoroaster – is a mythical story of the cypress tree is said to have sprung from a branch brought by Zoroaster from Paradise.

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Ancient Cypress tree thought to have planted by Zoroaster in Abarkooh, Iran.

A living Cypress tree lives in Abarkooh, Iran today that is thought to have been planted by Zoroaster himself. The tree is between 4,000 and 4,500 years old. The Cypress Tree is seen as a symbol of truth, integrity and beauty.

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Faravahar is the symbol of the spirit of human beings that has existed before his/her birth and will continue to exist after his/her death. Like a guardian angel.The Faravahar etched in the ruins of Persepolis, Iran.

Zoroastrianism is an ancient culture from Persia that survives in isolated areas, and more prosperously in India, where the descendants of Zoroastrian Persian immigrants are known as Parsis, or Parsees. In India the religion is called Parsiism.

In Zoroastrianism, the Faravahar or human spirit, embodies two opposing indicators of good and bad. It is the symbol of Zoroastrianism.  The Faravahar is symbolic of the spirit of a human being before his/her birth and will continue to exist after his/her death. It can be seen as a sort of  guardian angel. It is very similar to the symbol of Shamash/Utu the Sun God of Mesopotamia. The teachings contain both monotheistic and dualistic features. Zarathustra praised Ahura Mazda (God) as the creator of heaven and earth. Zoroaster taught a philosophy that everybody should try to promote his/her Sepanta Minu (positive force) and suppress his/her Ankareh Minu (negative force).

586 BCE – King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon’s temple. He deported the Jews to Babylon and built a temple to Marduk, as the King of the Gods.

539 BCE – The Chaldean empire fell when it was conquered by King Cyrus of Persia, giving way to the Achaemedien Empire, which ruled until 330 BCE.

The Achaemenid Persian Empire was the largest that the ancient world had seen, extending from Anatolia (Turkey) and Egypt across western Asia to northern India and Central Asia.

550 BCE – King Cyrus the Great, came to rule large parts of the Middle East with territories as far as western Pakistan. He conquered Babylon in 539 BCE and saw himself as a traditional Mesopotamian King.

525 BCE – Cyrus’s son Cambyses is now King and conquers the Egyptian capital of Memphis along the Nile River.

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The ancient city of Parsa in (Persia/Iran) served as the capital of the Persian Empire. Persepolis was built on Mount Mithra.  The pillars are representative of trees.

518 BCE – King Darius, built Persepolis: a city worthy of governing and entertaining the royalties of the member nations. It was a magnificent temple: stairways, gates and ceremonial halls. Darius conquered parts of Greece in 494 BCE. In Iranian tradition the cypress tree represents auspiciousness that was traditionally believed to have been planted by Zoroaster. The palm tree is a symbol of affluence and good life. The motif of the lion-goring-the-bull appears repeatedly at Persepolis.  It may have astrological symbolism (Leo/Lion = sun and Taurus/Bull = Venus/Moon).

486 BCE – King Xerxes, son of Darius, attempted to force the mainland Greeks to acknowledge Persian power, Sparta and Athens refused to give way. Xerxes led his sea and land forces against Greece in 480 BCE. He defeated the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae and  conquered Athens. Xerxes was assassinated and succeeded by one of his sons, who took the name Artaxerxes I (465–424 BCE). He was succeeded by Darius II (423–405 BCE) and Artaxerxes II (405–359 BCE) Artaxerxes III (358–338 BCE) Artaxerxes IV (338–336 BCE.) Darius III (336–330 BCE)

330 BCE – Darius III was murdered by one of his own generals. Alexander the Great claimed the Persian empire and conquered Persepolis. He looted the city and burned it to the ground.

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Persian mythology also tells of a Tree of Life that held the seeds of the world’s plants and animals, which stood at the center of a garden known as Pairidaeza, the Persian paradise. This garden was originally associated with the Virgin Goddess Pairidaeza who represented the eternal womb from which all life begins.  One day two birds landed on the tree sending a thousand branches crashing onto the ground spreading a thousand seeds.  One of the birds gathered up all the seeds and planted them in fertile places all over the earth. All the plants and animals in the world are believed to originate from those seeds.

In ancient Mesopotamia the Tree of Life was seen as an organic connection between Earth and Sky, the life of humans and the life of gods. Various deities were often depicted standing on both sides of the tree.  This symbolized the opposite yet harmonic aspects of nature’s creative process.

All of these ancient stories laid the groundwork for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Abraham, the Biblical father of monotheism was born in the Sumerian city of UR. These stories were carried by him and passed on to his children.